Published: March 26th 2009March 24th 2009
I have had some trouble starting this entry. As I write, I watch the goat herders with their flock pass outside my window. I hear my neighbors’ roosters crowing. The sun is shining, yet there is snow on the not so distant Stara Planina ranges. The air is cool, and is mixed with the unmistakable smell of livestock and the sweet smoke of wood burning stoves. The bees are pollinating the beautiful cherry blossoms; I can hear their collective buzz outside my window.
We arrived in the small village of Dzhulyunitsa outside Veliko Tarnovo about two weeks ago. This was our temporary destination after leaving Scotland and travelling 2000 miles across Europe with the dogs. Our plan was rigorously thought out and studied - Anne read many blogs to come up with the best solution. Our initial goals were conflicting - the humans wanted to see and experience much on the trip, however the reality of the situation was that the dogs would be stressed throughout much of the journey. So we sacrificed much of the sight-seeing, and just drove with brute force throughout much of the journey. Apologies in advance to those of you who enjoy the photographs - there are none - most of them would have just been fuzzy anyhow when taken at 160km/h on the autobahns or when falling into the potholes in Romania.
My success criterion was loosely based around speeding fines and broken axles. Success meant I had avoided both. We managed to just squeeze the dogs into the back seat after piling in all of stuff. 2 Boxes of stuff we knew would not fit was already on its way via the trusty mail service. We said our goodbyes to Anne's family who have so wonderfully looked after us over the last 3 months (was it really that long!), and began our journey south.
To split the journey up a bit into different modes of transport, we decided to drive to Newcastle and board the ferry that would take us to Amsterdam overnight. This saved us the difficult journey through the UK to Dover, and we happily avoided major traffic areas such as the outskirts of London. The Ferry was essentially a ship - we had a nice cabin with good size bathroom, plenty of restaurants and a Dutchman that knew how to make an awesome double Espresso. The dogs had less than perfect accommodation - a room in the depths of the ship that was essentially empty with the exception of a bunch of dog crates. We gave them some cushions, a sedative, and hoped for the best. Needless to say they were quite happy to see us the following morning. Some dogs sulk, but ours just chose to sleep once we clambered into the car. For the first time I came to experience driving a right had drive vehicle on the right hand side of the road. Pretty weird to begin, but like anything, you get used to it pretty quickly. The only flaw is overtaking slow vehicles - it can be difficult to see oncoming traffic. Luckily my trusty navigator could help me out.
So with the the help of super motorways, we sped quickly through the Netherlands and into Germany. We stayed overnight in a quaint little town called Leidersbach that had the best schnitzel's ever. Next morning we gorged our way through a delicious breakfast and zoomed our way across the autobahn to Austria. 160km/h just seemed too slow on these motorways. We had sheets of rain sometimes, and when Anne was wondering how I could see outside the windscreen to drive, I didn't tell her that I was blind also, but was using the force to guide my way.
A little town called Saint Polten was the next stop on our journey. We conceded some comfort and chose a hotel that had a big cornfield next door, and the dogs had a good run and play before passing out. I don't know why they were exhausted - they slept all day! I was the tired one! We grabbed some wicked pizza.
It was here that our Garmin (SatNav) really showed its skill. Dorothy we called her, and up to this point, she had performed admirably. It's a liberating feeling knowing you can go anywhere and not get the feeling of being lost. Need a bank, or a supermarket? Don't look around, just punch in 'Bank' or 'Food' and Dorothy would show me the way. I had all of the maps to the end of Western Europe, and each day I would punch in a destination about 800km away, and Dorothy would provide the fastest route. However we would be heading to Eastern Europe tomorrow, and I found how wonderfully easy it was to plug my Garmin into my lappy and download individual maps that would get us all the way to our new home, without falling off the edge of Dorothy’s world.
With Dorothy all set, we decided to make an early start. We left the hotel and continued South East. We hit Hungary around 10am, and exited the country about 4 hours later. These countries are so tiny! Super fast motorway all the way, who would have guessed that Hungary had awesome roads? Flat and fast. Romania is the speed bump of Eastern Europe. The first part was smooth, but slow, mostly 50km/h areas. Wet and winding roads. Snow and sleet. Little white policecars around every corner, just itching to book you. Romanian road police are infamous, and how I made it through the country without getting booked is beyond me.
Romania is a relatively poor country like Bulgaria, and there are lots of shanty towns. Towns are bundled up next to each other, sometimes a new town is announced only a couple of hundred meters after exiting the last one. Most of the buildings are poorly built from brick and stone. Power cables, antenna’s, and satellite dishes and other modern additions seem out of place here yet they are sometimes the only evidence of habitation. Many of the dwellings utilize their land for subsistence farming - be it growing vegetables or raising livestock. Lots of goats and sheep graze by the side of the road as we pass by.
It was getting late, and Anne managed to persuade a hotelier in Deva - about 150km outside Bucharest - to check us in with the Dogs. A super nice hotel; the dogs were very well behaved after giving them strict instructions to keep their paws clean and not to maul the other guests in front of the staff. A side note about the dogs: They really were great throughout the entire journey. It's all about expectations. I knew if we assumed their perfect behavior we would be disappointed. So we accepted that there would be times they might be tired and irritable, and they proved to be less so than we thought. Most people with kids probably go through this phase also. Hope for the best, but expect the worst, and you will never be disappointed. I hope my builder has lost interest in reading to this point….
Perhaps the dogs might have just changed their own outlook; they may have accepted a routine of changing environments now - accepting it as the norm - so new sights, smells and environments no longer really faze them.
Deva was our last stop before the final drive into Bulgaria and Veliko Tarnovo, and our only stop in Romania. It was also where the road turns from smooth sailing to patchy horridness. Romania is undertaking a huge effort to improve their roadwork, and evidence of this is the stretch of new bitumen we were driving up to this point. Future travelers I am sure can expect a much smoother journey. As you drive south to Bulgaria you have a choice of 3 hours of traffic jams through Bucharest, or skirt past on the “Ring Road” and head for the only Motorway in Romania. Now don’t go and get confused with this “Ring Road” being anything like a major arterial, let alone signposted. Remember, nearly everything is Romania is 50km/h for a reason. Appearing out of nowhere are potholes that can swallow small cars whole. Dorothy took us down side streets that to the eye defy them being called streets, but rather should be called “back-alley dirt roads where very bad things happen”. Against my better judgment, gut instinct, and everything else that was telling me “This is the wrong way”, Dorothy somehow negotiated us to a stretch of road free of potholes that Romania calls a “Motorway”. From here we passed more little white police cars, and little old ladies selling flowers, both in the emergency lanes as we sped by.
Later in the afternoon we hit the Romanian-Bulgarian border. We paid our 4 Euros and crossed the Danube and touched Bulgaria. From here driving was a breeze. Much like Australian country roads, the next 200km floated by at 90km/h. The afternoon was warm and clear. An unrealistic feeling of belonging entered my psyche, probably because of the extended journey since leaving Canada, the feeling of remaining “In Transit” since December finally coming to an end. Dorothy tells me the trip averaged out at around 74km/h, covering about 600km per day over the 4 days of driving.
Two weeks have passed since our trip, and we feel much refreshed. We are starting to establish ourselves, getting to know the area, and I’m failing spectacularly at learning the language. My old routines have temporarily gone awry, but this is not a bad thing. Our little temporary accommodation has had its teething problems, but that is all part of the discovery. On the cold days when I run I wear my running long johns, there is a distinct look of “otherness” in the eyes of the locals as I pass by. Being a minority is something everyone needs to enjoy once in a while, to help this segregated world we live in. Our town has produce markets on Saturday, and here you can enjoy the fruits of the locals’ labor at ridiculous prices. All types of extraordinarily fresh fruit and veggies, eggs, bread, herbs and honey. And the flavors of this produce are simply outrageously good.
Dzhulyunitsa is typical of many towns in Bulgaria, and if I had to compare, it reminds me of those tiny towns in the Australian country, like Hill End in NSW, or Dunolly in Victoria, or even the sleepy towns in country France. You know the ones - you drive through them without seeing a soul and wonder whether anyone lives there, and if they do, then what the heck do they do? I’m guessing it wouldn’t be too outrageous to think part of their day would be spent listening to the bees buzz around the Cherry blossoms, watching the goat herders tend to their goats, and taking the time to smell the distinctive smells of country life.
Thanks to all who helped me whilst I was running around frantically in Australia for my brief stay to organize all our stuff to be shipped. It was great to catch up with some, but sad to have missed others. It was strange noting the crispy golden yellows of the landscape in Melbourne, yet seeing the lush green of Sydney. Hopefully we can come back a visit again in the not too distant future, or perhaps you would like to come for one of Anne’s great dinners here? What other reason do you need?
I shall endeavor to post some pics around town on my next update.